Tiki Barber deserves cheers, Giants fans

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Tiki Barber had no choice but to be arrogant, and you do not have to be a rocket scientist or Bill Belichick to figure out why. No small running back devoid of breakaway speed survives and thrives in the NFL without being arrogant.

Most people think what they think. Tiki Barber? He says what he thinks. He believed Tom Coughlin was too tough and Eli Manning was too soft at a time when the vast majority of Giants shared that belief -- in private, of course.

So Barber is at it again, calling Coughlin's leadership into question and practically begging tens of thousands of people to boo him when he is introduced for the Giants' Ring of Honor ceremony Sunday night. In a lot of ways, Barber is like a WWE wrestler hopelessly stuck in the role of villain.

He can't help himself; it's in the script. At halftime of the Bears game, he should march out onto the New Meadowlands Stadium field to ominous music, wearing some evil-looking mask and cape.

And the fans should cheer him, anyway. Tiki Barber should be welcomed Sunday night for exactly what he is: The best offensive player the franchise has ever dressed.

Sports fans in this part of the country are forever credited for being knowledgeable and fair, and this Ring of Honor deal will help determine whether that claim belongs to fact or myth.

Barber was half the size of Brandon Jacobs and played twice as big. Nobody had to tell him to hit a hole with more purpose and fire.

Barber rushed for more than 10,000 yards over 10 seasons, and he averaged 1,680 yards over the last three. But his career is not defined by the box score any more than his legacy should be defined by his mouth.

Tiki played through broken bones and mangled ligaments. He didn't miss a day of practice under Coughlin, not one. Every Sunday, Barber stood beside his head coach for the national anthem and then for three hours gave the team and its fan base his every last drop of blood, sweat and tears.

So he said Coughlin's unforgiving style drove him out of the locker room and into a network studio. So he mocked Manning's attempt to expand his voice as a leader. So he spent the last 24 hours telling anyone who asked that Major Tom is back in danger of becoming Captain Queeg.

It was as if Barber was saying, "Go ahead, boo me. Make my night."

Only Barber doesn't deserve to be booed any more than Joe Torre deserved to be booed over his book the night he returned to the Bronx.

"I left a lot of myself within this organization," Barber said Thursday by phone. So yes, it hurt when he was jeered at Giants Stadium.

"But I understood it," Barber said. "I get the opinions that emanate from the fans. When push comes to shove, they're going to show loyalty to the organization over the player."

Of course, this all started that grim Giants Stadium day Barber stepped to the podium and declared Coughlin's Giants had just been outcoached by John Fox's Panthers. Never mind that any right-minded witness to Carolina's 23-0 victory over the Giants agreed with Tiki's take; Coughlin summoned him to his office before the running back made it to the parking lot, and the two argued for 40 minutes.

"Now I'm going to have to answer this question every week next year, starting with minicamp, that I got outcoached," Coughlin barked in that meeting.

The following year, in his last regular-season game, Barber merely saved Coughlin's job with a franchise-record 234 yards and three touchdowns against the Redskins -- going out like Ted Williams did, with a home run.

In retirement, Barber called out Coughlin and Manning and, wouldn't you know it, Coughlin and Manning won the Super Bowl title Tiki didn't win. Barber was ex-communicated on the spot. "I'm Public Enemy No. 1 if you're with the Giants," he would say. "With every heroic story there has to be a foil, and I'm convenient for that. I am the f------ foil in a Shakespearean play."

Barber hasn't exactly been a smash hit on TV, and his divorce has been about as messy as the McCourts' out in L.A. And when given a chance Thursday to backpedal from comments made to Yahoo! Sports about Coughlin's grip on the Giants -- "it's definitely slipping away," Barber said -- Tiki did what Tiki does.

He hit the line a second time.

"[Coughlin's] at a crisis because the perception is that he's losing his team," Barber said on a conference call arranged by the Giants.

"He needs to figure out a way to get control of the situation."

Barber is too smart to have thought those quotes would get buried beneath his praise of Coughlin ("Tom is a great coach, we all know that"). If only on muscle memory, Barber was back in the role of WWE villain.

The fans shouldn't take the bait. They should remember how Barber worked through his fumbling issues, carried the ball with honor, and proved tough enough -- at a brutal position -- to play in all 16 regular-season games in his last five seasons and in eight of his last 10.

The metropolitan area is an opinionated place, and Tiki fit right in. But when he's introduced Sunday night, Barber should not be remembered for his off-the-field mouth.

His on-the-field heart deserves better.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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